CAPSULE: With more the feel of a fable than of a genuine piece of history, this film tells the story of Bruno, the loving son of a father who was running an extermination camp for the Nazis. With a child's innocence he does not understand what the camp is and, he makes friends with an interned boy. If the film is a fable, it is a powerful one. Mark Herman directs from his own screenplay based on the novel by John Boyne. Rating: low +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10
When the TV miniseries THE HOLOCAUST was made, Michael Moriarty was playing a scene as a concentration camp commandant home for Christmas. He says that the scene made him just break down and cry. How can a father in that position look his family in the eye and celebrate the holiday knowing he is a mass murderer? It is rare that a film looks at the effects of the Holocaust on the perpetrators rather than the victims. THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS is a powerful look at the same sort of family. Father (played by the reliable David Thewlis) has just been promoted to the responsibility of running a death camp. He takes his family from Berlin to the unidentified village where the camp has been located. But though the two characters of Father and Mother (Vera Farmiga) are well defined, the center of the film is eight-year-old Bruno (a remarkable Asa Butterfield, actually eleven years old). At first bored with his new home, he finds ways to sneak out the back garden and go to the fence where he meets and makes friends with Shmuel (Jack Scanlon) who Bruno thinks has a fun life on what he thinks is a farm were people wear pajamas all day. Veteran actor Richard Johnson plays Father's father and is probably the source of Father's character flaws.
There are some problems with the narrative. Bruno never realizes what a death camp really is. Of course, few of the audience members are not far, far ahead of Bruno, though perhaps nobody who did not go through the experience can really know. But the film is not about what is happening beyond the fence, but how Bruno's many misimpressions are slowly corrected. Even the suffering Shmuel from whom Bruno learns knows little more than Bruno does. Also, somewhat unrealistically, I think three people very close to Father make very clear that they do not approve of Father's career in spite of the prestige and success it brings him. It is very unlikely to have so many open dissenters in the same family as the camp commander. Multiple characters make quite a point in the film how bad the chimney smoke from the camp smells. But the production of this smoke seems be a rare event, and that really does not make sense. Also why does Shmuel have so much time to sit by the fence? Like LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, this film seems to soften the Holocaust in order to tell a story that probably could not have happened in the real world.
It has become a convention of the syntax of cinema to have an accent substitute for speaking in a foreign language. The obvious choice would be to either have the actors speak German, or with a German accent. Instead an English accent was chosen, natural to the English actors of the film. The colors when Bruno first comes to his new home are bright and vibrant. As the film progresses those bright colors seems to drain out of the film. The colors become much more muted.
James Horner, at one time disdained by film music aficionados, gives the film a lovely melodic score with a little foreshadowing and also a feeling of innocence at times. Scores of this quality have become infrequent. Texture music scores with little or no melody have become the rule. It is nice to have melody back.
The film starts slowly and telling it tale very deliberately. By the end of the film it is moving at a breathless pace. But the film has a feel of insulating the viewer from the hard realities of life in the camps. We are told that Shmuel is hungry, but we see nobody who looks like he has been missing meals. The novel was written for young adults and the film feels like it pulls its punches. The final horrifying revelation is still a long way from the painful realities of those days. I rate THE BOY IN THE STRIPED PAJAMAS a low +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0914798/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/boy_in_the_striped_pajamas/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper